Cave Art May Have Been Painted By Mostly Women, Scientists Say

cave art
Hand stencil in Pech Merle Cave. Courtesy French MInistry of Culture

The prehistoric cave art of Europe may have been painted mostly by women, a new study covered by National Geographic suggests.

Archaeologist Dr. Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University came to this conclusion through studying one of the most enigmatic icons of prehistoric European cave art–hand stencils. In many European caves, there are negative images of hands produced by placing the hand against the cave wall and blowing paint all around it. They range from 12,000 to 40,000 years old, an astonishingly long artistic tradition.

Men’s and women’s hands are different, especially in the relative length of the fingers, so Snow examined 32 of these these stencils from caves in Spain and France. He found that 75 percent of the hands were female.

It’s long been assumed that most cave art was done by men, since so many of the subjects have to do with hunting, generally a male activity in hunter-gather societies. Of course, what Snow’s data really show is that the majority of hand stencils in the sample are of women, which doesn’t say anything about the rest of the art. It could be that there was a separation in the sexes as to who painted what, or perhaps the majority of prehistoric artists were indeed women.

The biggest contributor to the study was the cave of El Castillo in Cantabria, northern Spain, where 16 stencils were measured. This cave is open to the public, so you can take a look at the hands yourself and come to your own conclusions. Gargas and Pech Merle in France were also in the study and open to the public.

Hand stencils have been found in areas as far apart as Argentina, Africa, Australia, and Borneo. It would be interesting to see what results Snow’s study would have on these artistic traditions.

Spanish Cave Paintings Discovered to be Some of the Oldest in Europe

cave paintings
Image courtesy GipuzkoaKultura

Cave paintings at the Altxerri cave system in the Basque region of northern Spain are about 39,000 years old, making them some of the oldest in Europe, Popular Archaeology reports.

A team of French and Spanish scientists analyzed the paintings, which include images such as the bison shown here, as well as finger marks, a feline, a bear, an unidentified animal head and more abstract markings. This early dating of these images puts them in the Aurignacian Period, believed by most archaeologists to be the first flowering of modern humans in the region, although whether or not there were still Neanderthals in the area at this time is an open question.

A later set of paintings in another part of the cave system, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, date from “only” 29,000-35,000 years ago.

By comparison, the art at Cauvet Cave in France is about 31,000 years old, although it is of a much higher quality. The beautiful paintings there were the subject of Herzog’s breathtaking 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

A full report on the cave paintings can be found in the latest issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

VIDEO: Prehistoric Art Of Panther Cave Reproduced In 3D


Panther Cave in Seminole Canyon, Texas, has some of the country’s best-preserved prehistoric cave paintings. A colorful frieze of leaping panthers, feathered shamans and strange abstract shapes have puzzled researchers for decades. It appears to be telling a story of some sort, but what does that story say?

Now this new 3D video allows you to study it for yourself. Color enhancement brings out details hard to see with the naked eye. It also brings the cave (really a rock shelter) to the general public. Panther Cave is only visible from the opposite bank of the river or by a specially scheduled boat trip with a park ranger.

The paintings date to the Archaic period, a vague label stretching from 7,000 B.C. to 600 A.D. Judging from the condition of the paintings and the relatively shallow depth of the rock shelter, this former archaeologist thinks they must date to the last few centuries of that period. Take that with a grain of salt; my specialty was the Anglo-Saxon migration period.

The site is managed by Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site and Amistad National Recreation Area. Sadly, Past Horizons reports that the site is now endangered by flooding related to the construction of Amistad Reservoir. As prehistoric art across the nation falls prey to “development,” vandalism and time, these detailed videos become important records of our past.

For a look at some cave paintings from the opposite side of the globe, check out my post on the painted caves of Laas Geel in Somaliland.

Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

adventure travel, Adventure Travel, Ethiopia, camels, Somali Region
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region. While my quest for Ahmed Guray’s castle was a failure, I did see potential for adventure travel in the region.
Adventure travelers generally are looking for three things: historical sights, interesting cultures, and natural wonders. The Somali region is a bit short of historical sights, although there are a few of interest, but it’s strong on culture and nature.

First, the historical sights. The main one is Alibilal Cave in the Erer District, about 10 km (6 miles) from Erer town. This cave is covered with prehistoric paintings of cows, giraffes, gazelle, and other figures. Last year I was amazed by the prehistoric cave art of Laas Geel in Somaliland, and I’m really curious to see this cave. I’ve seen some video footage and it looks impressive. Other historical sights include the mosque I wrote about yesterday, and some colonial buildings scattered about the region.

The Somali Region is much stronger on cultural attractions. There aren’t many places left in the world where you can see camel herders living much as they did centuries ago. You can drink fresh camel milk in traditional domed huts made of mats. Try shay Somali, Somali tea that’s mixed with sugar and camel’s milk and tastes a lot like Indian chai. The culture here preserves itself by oral traditions. Sitting with a clan elder and listening to his stories can be a one-of-a-kind experience. The Somali region is the easiest place to experience Somali culture, being cheaper than Somaliland and far safer than Somalia.Most Somalis don’t speak English, of course, but I know of at least one Somali tour guide in Harar, Muhammed “Dake” (guleidhr @yahoo.com). He even spent some of his youth herding camels in this region! Harar makes the best base for seeing the Somali region. It’s much cooler and more interesting than the dusty lowland regional capital of Jijiga, and only adds an hour to your trip.

Because the Somalis are unused to tourism, adventure travelers will be free from a lot of the usual hassles like touts and pushy vendors. Expect plenty of attention though, and a large dose of curiosity. This isn’t a bad thing. You’ll get into lots of interesting conversations that will teach you about the local culture. Virtually all foreigners they see are working in NGOs, so expect a lot of questions about your development project.

Ethiopia’s Somali Region offers plenty of natural attractions for adventure travel. There are five regional parks with various types of wildlife. The Somali officials I spoke to recommended Dado Park, which has lion, giraffes, and elephants. I also got to see three families of baboons on the highway between Harar and Jijiga. Another attraction are the Somali Region’s many hot springs. Like hot springs everywhere, they’re reputed to have healing qualities and people come from all around to “take the waters”. The easiest to get to from Harar or Jijiga is in the Erer district near Erer town, not far from the Alilbilal painted cave. The town is 113 km (68 miles) from Harar and the cave and hot springs together would make a good day trip from Harar. The Erer-Gota hot springs are located on the grounds of one of Haile Selassie’s palaces (now gone to ruin) and it’s still popular with people looking for cures of various diseases. Hot springs are popular with herders too, who wrap their lunch up in cloth and stick it in the water to cook it! Reminds me of wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil and sticking it in the coals of a campfire.

Let me stress that while I’ve been through the Somali Region twice now, I haven’t seen many of these attractions myself, only heard about them from Somalis. Hopefully next year I’ll have a chance to explore this region more thoroughly. In the meantime, if you go to the Somali Region, please drop me a line and tell me your experiences. One person already has. A member of the Ethiopia-U.S. Mapping Mission wrote to tell me that he spent a year there in 1967-68 mapping the region. He had lots of fun hunting and exploring, even though he often didn’t bathe for up to two weeks at a time! Veterans of the mission have a website called the Ethiopia-United States Mapping Mission with lots of information and photos. Be sure to check out the “Stories and Memories” section.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Not sure yet. Wherever my travels in the Harar region take me!

Somaliland: the other Somalia

There are some places you just can’t consider for a vacation. While even Iraq has recently opened up to carefully handled tours, Somalia remains out of bounds. What with an Islamist movement proudly proclaiming its ties to Al-Qaeda, and a decades-long civil war between rival clans, there’s no chance of exploring the Somali culture and landscape, right?

Actually, that’s only half true.

The Republic of Somaliland is the northern third of what most maps show as Somalia. Anyone paying attention to the news knows that Somalia hasn’t been a unified nation for quite some time, but this one region, a little larger than England and home to 3.5 million, has managed to bring stability and a developing democracy to its people. Born out of the colony of British Somaliland, it gained independence in 1960 and immediately joined former Italian Somaliland to create what we now know as Somalia. A brutal dictatorship and a civil war later, it declared independence in 1991 and has quietly built a nation as the rest of Somalia disintegrated into chaos.

But no other country recognizes Somaliland as an independent state, which makes it very hard to get international investment and attention. Now Somaliland officials are hoping an increase in tourism will help to literally put their country on the map. It already has regular contact with its neighbors Ethiopia and Djibouti, and has representatives in several major capitals. The Tourism Ministry is busy making plans and there’s a good website highlighting Somali Heritage and Archaeology.

%Gallery-84671%With a countryside only thinly populated by nomads, Somaliland has good potential for safaris. Lions, cheetahs, zebras, antelope, and other animals are easily spotted. Even more stunning are the well-preserved paintings at Laas Geel, believed to be some of the oldest in Africa. They’re located near the capital Hargeysa and remained unreported until 2002. Colorful paintings of hunters and animals date back an estimated 9,000 years.

Other towns to check out are Barbera and Zeila, two ports with excellent coral reefs as well as old colonial buildings from British and Ottoman times. More important than bricks and mortar, though, is the chance to interact with a culture that has had comparatively little contact with the outside world. This is a rare chance to see a country unaccustomed to tourism, where there are no “tourist sites” and “local hangouts”. For the adventure traveler, it’s still pretty much uncharted territory.

After almost 20 years of independence, Somaliland is beginning to get some recognition from adventure travelers. The most recent edition of Lonely Planet Ethiopia has a short section on the country, and three young backpackers recently posted a video of their trip there on YouTube. A reporter from the Pulitzer Center has also covered the country on an online video. Somaliland could become the adventure travel destination of the new decade.

While Somaliland has some good potential, travelers should take care. Government bodyguards are required (costing $10 a day each) and there are few facilities for visitors. The country has also attracted the ire of Al-Shabab, an Islamist group with ties to Al-Qaeda that wants to take over the Horn of Africa. In 2008 a series of deadly car bombings blamed on Al-Shabab left two dozen dead in Hargeysa. Also, the countryside is not yet safe enough for foreigners to travel overland from Ethiopia on public transport. There are regular flights to Hargeysa from Addis Ababa and other regional capitals. The office for Somaliland in Addis Ababa (which is not recognized as an embassy by the government of Ethiopia) can issue visas and give advice. If you do decide to go, it’s best to plan well in advance and talk to the government as soon as possible.